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Demons of the Self
Tristen Taylor finds problems in meaningfully defining ‘evil’.
On the night of 27th January 2015, in the beautiful but not so tranquil university town of Stellenbosch, South Africa, Henri van Breda killed his parents and brother with an axe. His sister somehow managed to survive her wounds. At his trial, van Breda showed no remorse, and refused to take responsibility for his dreadful crimes.
On the 8th of May 2017, a bright philosophy student at Stellenbosch University, Dean Dart, and his comrades, pasted replicas of Hitler Youth posters from the 1930s all over the campus. Since Stellenbosch University was the intellectual cradle of apartheid, the posters were more sinister than the mere childish rantings of an ignorant alt-right teenager. The posters called upon white students to gather, reboot South African fascism, and fight: Sieg Heil.
The list of evil acts in the world goes on and on. Yet ‘evil’ is the most useless of all descriptions of profoundly immoral acts. Although we might start by saying that ‘evil’ is ‘extreme wickedness’, when a person or action is called ‘evil’, that’s no explanation. The description yields no understanding of either the person or the act, and we still have to ask what counts as ‘extreme wickedness’, what doesn’t, and why. ‘Evil’ is a rather empty construct that is used to separate us from what the warlord of Iraq, George W. Bush, liked to call ‘evildoers’. But what is evil, and where are the borders to be drawn concerning what is evil and what is not?
Of course there are religious explanations for evil, but religions already tend to suffer from the so-called ‘Problem of Evil’. The basic argument behind the Problem of Evil depends on how God is conceptualised. The monotheistic definition of God is that God is a being who is all powerful, all knowing, and all good. But if that is so, why then are there evil acts? Why would God allow genocide, for instance? God by definition has the power and knowledge to prevent a terror famine or mass murder, and if God is all good, then God would prevent them, surely? Yet the atrocities continue. So this is often cited as proof that there is no (monotheistic) God.
A popular response is found in the concept of free will. The simplified version of the counterargument is that God gave us free will, which is an indispensable good, and evil is a by-product of free will. If God prevented us from doing evil deeds, then we wouldn’t have free will.
However, one of the issues with evil in a religious context is that there isn’t a method to determine which response is the correct one. Nuclear warfare, one might think, surely is an evil. Yet Father George Zabelka, the chaplain of the US atomic bomb group in 1945, blessed both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki missions. He later renounced those blessings and took the position that war per se is sin. Clearly, varying interpretations of doctrine, even by the same person, can lead to different conceptions of what is evil.
But it’s not only the religious who use the concept of evil: hardcore atheists can and do use it. In his obituary of Osama bin Laden, Christopher Hitchens stated, “I thought then, and I think now, that Osama bin Laden was a near-flawless personification of the mentality of a real force: the force of Islamic jihad. And I also thought, and think now, that this force absolutely deserves to be called evil” (The Enemy, 2011).
Both the religious and secular can and do agree on acts or people that are considered to be evil. There seems to be agreement from both worldviews that child rape is evil. Believers and unbelievers usually see torture as evil. But what this common notion of evil actually is… that’s a bit hazy, and often quite subjective.
We could perhaps resort to a definition of evil along the lines of ‘we know evil when we see it’. However, this kind of definition runs straight into the problem of moral relativism. After the Mongol emperor Tamerlane conquered Baghdad in 1401, he is reported to have had 90,000 of its residents beheaded, and with them built 120 mountains of skulls. An unknown Russian chronicler once said of him, “He left no eye open to weep for the dead.” So were Tamerlane and the Mongol hordes evil? The Mongols certainly didn’t, and don’t, think so. Uzbekistan considers Tamerlane to be a national hero, and there’s a monument to him in Tashkent. And although Hitchens may have thought that bin Laden and militant jihad are evil, Al-Qaeda and Islamic State don’t think they’re the evildoers – much the opposite. They would say that they’re engaged in the divinely blessed act of restoring the Caliphate and removing Western decadence and repression from the world. So to say that ‘we know evil when we see it’ doesn’t really help, since it makes what evil is depend entirely on who sees it.
For evil to be a useful concept, there need to be reasons why somebody or some act is evil. In other words, the concept of evil must have explanatory power. Without explanatory power, the concept of evil begs the question. Simply calling Pol Pot ‘evil’ provides no explanation of his evilness.
Let’s look at two methods of trying to provide ‘evil’ with explanatory power. The first belongs to the realm of philosophy and the second neurology. Both of these methods revolve around Socrates’ notion in Plato’s Crito that no one can knowingly or rationally do evil. Socrates’ argument is that we can’t rationally do what we know is wrong to do. So if we truly know what the good is – say feeding the starving – then we can’t knowingly or rationally starve people. People who knowingly refrain from doing evil acts do so precisely because they have a reasonable knowledge of the good. For Socrates, evil happens because people are ignorant of the good. So for Socrates evil is a type of ignorance. Being ignorant of the good is not just being unaware that, for example, genocide is evil. It also includes false reasoning or poor logic about genocide or the good. Socrates took great delight in proving that his interlocutors were ignorant of the good and that they routinely employed spectacularly poor logic. Worst dinner guest ever.
Socrates’ solution to how we can know the good was to either become a philosopher or to follow the instructions of philosophers – which, truth be told, might not always be the best of ideas. In 1933, the great German philosopher Martin Heidegger joined the Nazi party, and at his university gave a speech endorsing the key precept of the political philosophy of Nazism, the Führerprinzip, or Führer principle:
“Let not propositions and ‘ideas’ be the rules of your Being (Sein). The Führer alone is the present and future German reality and its law. Learn to know ever more deeply: that from now on every single thing demands decision, and every action responsibility. Heil Hitler!”
Heidegger is claiming that the Führer is the embodiment of the German nation. Therefore the Führer’s will is above written law, is always correct, demands total obedience, and is the expression of the good. Within this political conception, which fascist theorists saw as the solution to the failures of both democracy and communism, is the idea that the German nation comes into being through the Führer and National Socialism. Germany rises up from the ashes of the bankrupt philosophies of individualism and communism, to become a sort of organism where the individual’s identity is subsumed into a higher being, the body national. The individual is a mere subservient part of the far greater and overriding German nation; or as Hitler put it in Mein Kampf, “the individual should finally come to realise that his own pride is of no importance in comparison with the existence of his nation… above all the unity of a nation’s spirit and will are worth far more than the spirit and will of an individual.” The notion of individual human rights is absurd within this philosophy.
Evil Sigmund Freud by Jack Collinson 2022
Evil image © Jack Collinson 2022 To see more art please visit messyjc.co.uk
The Führerprinzip leads to the logical conclusion that was used in their defence by Hermann Göring during the 1945-46 Major War Criminals’ Trial, and Adolf Eichmann during his 1961 trial in Israel: since all decisions, will, and law reside in the Führer as the embodiment of the German nation, then neither Göring nor Eichmann can be held to account. They were performing the moral duty of total obedience, and were thus merely executing the decisions of the legitimate (and ultimate) authority. Moreover, they did not do evil: rather, they were freeing the nation to achieve its will to power, and those actions which practically realised the will of the body national were good, while those that failed to do this were bad. To translate Eichmann’s defence into ‘just following orders’ is to miss the horrible logic behind Nazism. Following orders is no defence under political liberalism: people do not and cannot abandon their moral agency when they are in the army, the police or some other government ministry, and can thus still be held to account for their actions. However, under a system where people don’t have and cannot have moral agency except that involving total obedience to the national will, as embodied in the Führer, the Nazi defence makes twisted but logical sense.
During his studies at Stellenbosch University’s philosophy department, Dean Dart the would-be Nazi propagandist probably rather liked reading Heidegger and Hitler. He may have particularly liked Heidegger’s statement in the Black Notebooks (written between 1931 and 1945, and posthumously published in 2014) that “World Judaism is ungraspable everywhere and doesn’t need to get involved in military action while continuing to unfurl its influence, whereas we are left to sacrifice the best blood of the best of our people.” Maybe Dart considered himself the intellectual reincarnation of one of apartheid’s architects and a graduate of Stellenbosch University, Johannes Van Rensburg. In 1933, Van Rensburg travelled to Germany to meet Hitler and Göring. He later became the leader of South Africa’s Nazi party, the Ossebrandwag, which was incorporated into the country’s ruling National Party after the war. Apartheid was instituted in 1948. The German Foreign Office stated in 1944 that the Ossebrandwag was “based on the Führer-principle, fighting against the Empire, the capitalists, the communists, the Jews…”
The British filmmaker Adam Curtis has pointed out that the narrative of the ‘good war against evil’ that was created during the Nuremberg trials has silenced investigation into the intellectual foundations of Nazism. But when we look deeper into them employing Socrates’ analysis the reason the Nazis did such terrible things becomes apparent: they employed and believed some spectacularly poor reasoning. The same could be said of Afrikaner nationalism, Stalinism, Maoism, and Year Zero.
However, something feels very wrong here. Can evil really only be either ignorance or poor reasoning on ethical issues? The enormity of certain crimes against humanity – genocide, terror famines, mass rape, slavery, and so on – in both descriptive and explanatory terms seems to require more than just inadequate logic. And there’s another problem haunting the philosophical inquiry into evil – philosophical interpretations of evil can become hazy and subjective real quick.
A superior alien culture, or a powerful AI, might look at the present state of Earth’s environment and use a kind of utilitarian approach to respond: in order to avoid catastrophic climate change and a consequent mass extinction event on Earth, just one species out of about 8.7 million species would either have to go extinct or be radically culled: Homo sapiens. While such an ethical prescription would be pretty horrible for us, it would be good for the rest of the global ecosphere. If human beings continue in their current fashion (and, let’s be honest, we aren’t doing anything significant to change our behaviour except to speed up the process) about 70% of all species will go extinct before we’re done. The genocide or mass culling of one species to prevent the extinction of millions becomes the good.
Humans have eradicated the polio virus, so we clearly do not think speciescide is necessarily wrong. Humans are perfectly comfortable with the notion that we should wipe out or severely cull species for the good of the whole. For example, feral and invasive cats are destroying the environment of a particular island, and should thus be eradicated in that environment. From the outside perspective of an alien or AI, we are the feral species, perhaps having about as much intelligence compared to them as cats do to us. But here, the beholder, once again, becomes important in discussions of evil. And the concept of evil itself remains hazy and subjective.
Another way to approach the concept of evil is to seek a neurological explanation. Henri van Breda’s evil act of hacking up his family was the product of a mental illness or a drug-induced psychosis. Some neuroscientists are indeed searching for ‘Syndrome E’, where E stands for Evil. The general idea is that Syndrome E, or a mental illness, or some other kind of abnormal brain state, is the physical cause of evil. This notion also has a link to Socrates’ thinking, since it proposes that a well-functioning and mentally fit individual would not commit evil acts. Evil is the product of a materially malfunctioning person.
Unfortunately there are two serious problems with his materialistic approach to the concept of evil. The first is that unless every evildoer has a mental illness or Syndrome E then the link between evil and brain/mental health must only be contingent. But it is reasonable to think that not everybody who does evil has a mental illness or Syndrome E. There are people with no noticeably malfunctioning brains who commit evil. After watching Eichmann at his trial, for instance, the philosopher Hannah Ardent concluded that he was sane and didn’t appear to have a mental malfunction. Yet he organised the logistics for the Holocaust. Moreover, there are many people with a mental illness or suffering severe delusions who don’t commit evil. Not every meth head is a psychotic killer. Indeed, severely deluded individuals with neurological problems can do good acts. So, although it sometimes contributes to the evil mind, something else must be going on besides a neurological fault.
Evil image © Jack Collinson 2022 To see more art please visit messyjc.co.uk
The second problem is that Syndrome E still doesn’t tell us what evil is. Let’s suppose that all the members of the Islamic State or even just the majority of have Syndrome E: we still have to define what evil is, and we’re back to it being a bit hazy and subjective. The commander of the British Army in WWI, General Douglas Haig, was either the evil Butcher of the Somme – vainly tossing all those boys into the meat grinder – or else he was just a man stuck in the awfulness of trench warfare. Having sex with underage boys is evil; but having sex with young boys was part of the social fabric of Ancient Greece, and arguably a matter of social cohesion. Serial killers who strangle children get the death penalty. Yet Madeline Albright presided over the painful deaths of half a million Iraqi kids, but gets to keep her pension. She also wrote a book called Memo to the President Elect: How We Can Restore America’s Reputation and Leadership, 2008. And in terms of the environment, our entire damn species needs to be locked up in a psychiatric ward. The only certainties, it seems, about the concept of evil, are that it explains nothing, and that attempting to define it is like trying to hold onto drifting clouds of chlorine gas.
Of course, such a conclusion clashes with popular discourse. Newspapers, speeches, social media, and ordinary conversations, are filled with declarations that a certain person or act is indisputably evil. Reporting on Donald Trump often gave the impression that the man is actually the devil in disguise.
Popular discourse about evil is an example of what the American philosopher Charles Stevenson called ‘emotivism’ – a term later popularised by A.J. Ayer. Under this view, calling something evil is nothing but an emotional expression about some incredibly horrible act or person. Similarly, our cultural notions of evil would be simply collective emotions of repulsion or disgust. When we look at the Rwandan genocide, for instance, we are so appalled by the sheer magnitude of the butchery that we can’t help but call the Interahamwe ‘evil’. The depth of our feelings is so great that we cast the perpetrators out of the human race and declare that there is just good and evil, and that’s all there is to it. Yet despite all our judicial executions, denunciations, tribunals, and declarations of human rights, the atrocities keep on repeating. Why? The answer rests in a deep and disturbing place, a place where the demons of the self slither in the dark.
In the Twenties and early Thirties, Sigmund Freud looked around and saw the coming of another war. Behind him was the carnage of the Great War. All those dead and soon to be dead – there had to be, Freud thought, something else besides the urge to life (Eros) in humans, which he named the death-urge, or Thanatos, after the Greek god of death. Thanatos is the part of our minds that seeks oblivion, the denial of life. In Thanatos, Freud named the part of humanity where nihilism, sadism, masochism, excessive hedonism, self-destruction, violence, aggression, and fraud reside. The world, as Freud saw it, was in Thanatos’s grip, making the coming inferno inevitable.
In a 1941 lecture, Leo Strauss said “German nihilism rejects… the principles of civilisation as such in favor of war and conquest, in favor of the warlike virtues.” And George Orwell, in his 1940 review of Mein Kampf, nailed it: “Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.” By the dry rattle of a funeral march, a nation sacrificed itself to Thanatos, and dragged the whole world along with it.
Laughter and song push aside all the hell of this world. But in our own time, when we fly across the world to appreciate the sheer beauty of it – all those colourful fish flitting across those gorgeous corals, for instance – we produce the carbon emissions that will destroy those very same reefs forever. And we know it. And, ultimately, we don’t care, or at least, we don’t care enough to actually change our behaviour. Our approach to mass extinction, of turning the abundance of life into ash, is nihilism writ large. Wanton killing and destruction in spades. It’s the death-urge globalised.
Pre-figuring Freud, the German writer and author of Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, captured the essence of the death-urge thus:
And rightly so, for all things that exist
Deserve to perish, and would not be missed—
Much better it would be if nothing were
Brought into being. Thus, what you men call
Destruction, sin, evil in short, is all
My sphere, the element I most prefer.
– Faust, Part One. Trans. David Luke. 1987
When we use the empty language of ‘evil’, declare evildoers mentally deficient, or pass the buck to God and so place atrocity beyond the pale of humanity, we are ignoring a fundamental part of human nature. Collectively we are genocidal, and individually we are all potential concentration camp guards. We are both the lust for life and the craving for death: they are what make us human. Until we look into our reservoirs of darkness, and honestly try to understand them, not look away and deny their existence, we won’t be able to deal with what, generation after generation, we have unhelpfully called ‘evil’.
© Dr Tristen Taylor 2022
Tristen Taylor is a Research Fellow of the Unit for Environmental Ethics, Stellenbosch University.